The Park That Almost Never Was

The tale of Sue Bierman Park

If ever a piece of land had the odds stacked against it, it would be San Francisco’s Sue Bierman Park.

Just over two decades ago, the five acres of prime waterfront land were at the receiving end of the Central Freeway’s on and off ramps. When the Loma Prieta earthquake delivered the freeway a deathblow in 1989, developers lined up to fill it with highrises or parking lots.

Little did they know, peering down from a nearby apartment complex was Ernestine Weiss, who thought the land would make a nice park.

“This was not an area you would like to come to,” said the 87-year-old Weiss, recalling the freeway era. “It was a blighted area.”

Weiss and other activists convinced city leaders to turn the land into the five acre Ferry Park. Then in 2001, they talked the San Francisco Park’s Commission into buying the land, assuring its future as open space.

“This is the most desirable piece of land in the city as far as I’m concerned,” said Weiss.

For park lovers, the land is now more valuable than ever. San Francisco’s Parks & Recreation Department just finished a 2.8 million dollar renovation of the land, paid for by the Park Development Fund.

On Tuesday, the land was rechristened Sue Bierman Park, after the former San Francisco Supervisor who died in a car wreck in 2006.

The ground’s bumpy topography was smoothed out – 70 trees were planted. A wooden canopy that sat at the edge of the park was torn down.  “Which served no purpose other than to have the birds land on it and you know what?” Weiss pointed out.

Parks and Recreation director Phil Ginsburg said he expects the park to become popular with the downtown office crowd and beyond.

“It’s our hope this will become a place where people picnic, people gather,” said Ginsburg, “and it becomes a really busy communal space.”

The 5.3 acre land sits on two plots along the Embarcadero and adjacent to Justin Herman Plaza. Nestled in between sprawling high rises, it offers sweeping views of the Embarcadero and bay.

“This is the most expensive piece of property in San Francisco,” said Mark Buell, president of San Francisco’s Parks Commission. “The idea we would be able to purchase it and develop it for open space speaks to the value systems we have in the city.”

Buell, who also sits as chairman of the America’s Cup Organizing Committee, said the park could also play a role in the coming yacht race. He said it could possibly host large video screens projecting onboard views from the competing yachts.  “There are areas that really lend themselves to put screens up and have entertainment,” he said.

Whatever its future, Weiss is forever part of the park’s history. She guided a news reporter to a shady corner of the park, where a bronze plaque honored her effort to save the land. It was installed by one of the area’s developers. Weiss, whose view once looked upon the Central Freeway onramp, can now see the plaque from her window.

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